Hello again everyone. It’s been too long since I’ve posted here. One of the reasons for my absence was that I have been working my way through several new works in other languages that I have had to scan and translate mostly “by machine” as I go. Reading one work led to several more and so it went. One result: I now have many new perspectives and questions relating to the New Testament and related literature, especially (but not only) to the Gospel of Mark, Book of Revelation and the Ascension of Isaiah.
While I was reading I sometimes sought escape by kind of doodling on and off on the Biblical Criticism & History Forum – earlywritings.com. While there, I had occasion to list what historians themselves have explained are the building blocks of historical research. That is, their own explanations of how they determine the facts of what happened long ago. From these raw facts historians reconstruct history itself and develop hypotheses about causes and the nature of the cultures and so forth, but “bedrock facts” come first. (Not that the information I posted on the forum had much impact since certain persons continued to discuss historical questions according to their long-held habits of thought that break all the rules for determining “facts”. They’re having fun and maybe that’s what matters most to some of them. C’est la vie.)
In sum, the methods common to historians and that they themselves have explained are these:
Look for a “primary source”, generally meaning a source that is contemporary with the person or event to which it testifies.
One example: Accounts of events and persons are found in writings that we have valid reasons to believe were produced by contemporaries of those persons and events.
Look for reasons to have some level of confidence in those sources — or not: e.g. do we know who wrote them and why?
Look for independent corroboration of the information in the sources or for general trustworthiness of the source.
An example I like to use is Socrates. How do historians know Socrates existed?
We have writings about Socrates that we can determine were written by his students (e.g. Plato, Xenophon), other writings that confirm that those texts are indeed by whom they say they are (e.g. Aristotle’s references to Plato’s works), and we also have contemporary works that are critical of Socrates, mocking him (e.g. by the playwright Aristophanes) — that is, confirmation of Socrates that appears to be independent of the works of Plato and Xenophon.
Those principles are not always spelled out by historians in their publications but they are generally noticeable to any reader who is looking for “how they know” what they are writing about.
Below is a collation of various quotations by historians and philosophers of history that do make the above principles explicit. It is a revised copy of what I posted on the BC&H forum.
Rules of historical reasoning
The New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham has argued that a historian should give the benefit of the doubt to any testimony. That is a fine starting principle when one needs to get along with neighbours and colleagues, but few nonbiblical historians would agree that it applies to the sources from long ago. Continue reading “Historical Research: The Basics”
no claim is above the requirement of justification
Anyone who reads widely about how historians work and how we can know anything about the past — as well as how to critically analyse news and media reports and any information at all — will likely at some point come across an interesting perspective in an article by Peter Kosso, Observation of the Past. I describe it as “interesting” because Kosso compares how we (should) read scientific instruments with how we (should) read our sources of information.
Here are some key points from that article.
There are three ways that knowledge of history is said to differ from our knowledge of the natural sciences:
History is largely the study of unique objects and singular events. Thus history cannot make generalizations about principles seen in nature. (Historians who once did try to find laws in history were called positivists but they are a rare species now.)
Historical subjects of inquiry cannot be manipulated to test hypotheses as can those of the natural sciences.
The third point is one that Kosso criticizes in his article: it is the common view that since historical events “are dead and gone, they are not amenable to observation.” Historians are like the jury at a criminal trial: they can listen to the testimony of witnesses but they can never see the crime itself.
But, argues Kosso, that third statement is misleading. The pastness of the phenomena that historians study is “not an epistemically significant factor in the process of our observation.”
Thus, “No Egyptologist has ever seen Ramses,” but particle physicists routinely observe the telltale tracks of electrons.
But here is the deep flaw in that analogy according to Kosso:
it is based on a mismatch between the objects of theoretical interest in history, for example Ramses, and the evidence, the tracks, for objects of theoretical interest in physics. (p. 23 – highlighting is mine in all quotations)
What would be a more accurate comparison? Either a comparison between studies of Ramses himself and studies of electrons themselves; or, a comparison between the evidence we have for Ramses (textual, archaeological) and the evidence we have for electrons (the tracks in a bubble chamber).
The interesting comparative analysis then is of the link, in each case, between the objects of interest and their image as shown in the evidential objects. (p. 23)
We come now to the quotation with which we opened this post,
no claim is above the requirement of justification (p. 26)
The scientist who proposes a description or theory on the basis of what the instruments have indicated about something — via electron microscopic image, seismic waves, ultrasonic image — that is invisible to the human eye will not, every time he or she speaks, explain how each point is justified by a particular reading of a particular program with known conditions, etc, but that background information is vital nonetheless and the scientist as a professional will always be able to produce whenever questioned about it.
Scientific observation, in other words, is observation, all things considered. It depends on an understanding of how the image was formed, that is, how the information got from the object of an observation report to the reporter. Only then is it reasonable to accept the report as reliable. (p. 27)
For a claim to be justified among scientists they must understand the principles by which a bubble chamber, a seismometer, a particle accelerator, a radio telescope detect information and how that information is interpreted. Much of the data collected is indirectly derived from the objects and recorded in what, to the untrained eye, look like meaningless lines and splotches. And before that end product of lines and splotches, there will have been earlier stages in the transmission of information involving various unfocussed images and electrical pulses that are in themselves unrecognizable as information. So what counts as information at the end of the process must include an understanding of how that data was derived.
Kosso refers us to Maxwell’s continuum of our increasing indirectness of observation of the natural world: personal spectacles are necessary for some of us simply to see a tree or house in focus; microscopes and telescopes distort the “natural” image for us to gain more insight into an object; then we have other instruments that register different kinds of waves beyond the light spectrum. Similarly, Kosso notes,
Historical observing involves a continuum of observability similar to Maxwell’s continuum. In the historical case there is an increasing indirectness in the observation of an event due to its distance in the past and the amount of mediation of information. (p. 30)
As scientific data is filtered through a range of indirect processes that observers must understand in order to best evaluate the results of their instruments, so historians have similar challenges with the interpretation of their data:
Atkinson, citing David Hume, suggests (and subsequently opposes) that “Statements about the past are claimed necessarily to diminish in credibility as time goes on. First observation, then memory, then first-, second-, third-hand testimony, and so on to the point of complete incredibility.” This scale of credibility of information will have more epistemological significance if it is sensitive not simply to how many stages are involved in the transmission of information but to the nature of those stages and their reliability for conveying information accurately. Thus one’s own memory may be no more credible than the testimony of an eyewitness, especially a witness with independent credentials as a competent, reliable, and even expert observer. This testimony is little different from a newspaper account by a reporter on the scene, which is in turn similar to an historical account, such as Thucydides’ description of the Peloponnesian wars, where the witnessing and faithful recording of the events are independently accountable. The point is that objects of historical interest, like objects of scientific interest, fill out a tight spectrum in terms of indirectness in the process of observation. Rather than drawing a dubious dichotomy in this spectrum it is epistemologically more enlightening to analyze the various kinds of stages in the indirectness and their potential threat to the conveyance of information. (pp. 30-31)
So if we follow the comparison with Maxwell’s continuum of observability in the sciences (from eye-glasses to Hadron colliders) we find that we have a continuum of degrees of clarity in the traces of historical events. The question to ask is not, “Can we observe Ramses?” but
Ask instead, Is this information of the event and does it come to us through interaction with the event? How is the information transmitted? Is there a reliable, independent account of the flow of information? (p. 31)
That’s worth highlighting again:
Is this information of the event and does it come to us through interaction with the event? How is the information transmitted? Is there a reliable, independent account of the flow of information?
In detail, that means the following for the historian and anyone interested in researching history:
Historical studies, no less than the sciences, are able to deal with these questions of information and accountability and are therefore able to analyze and use observation reports as do the sciences. In the case of written information from the past, the historical record, accounting claims are a standard part of the case for credibility of the evidence.
One ought to know, for starters, whether the information from the past has been intentionally passed on by the author, as in explicit chronicles or histories, or is unintended information which has been teased out of documents of the times by our reading between the lines and noting presuppositions or implications of the text. Attending to this unintended evidence in texts, looking “not for what their authors wanted to say, but for the unarticulated assumptions they carry with them,” not only increases the informational content but makes it more difficult for the authors to deceive or mislead. The background understanding of the intent behind textual evidence, in other words, helps account for the reliability of the information by describing aspects of the process by which the information was conveyed. The advice of M. I. Finley for assessing the credibility of textual evidence, “The first questions to be asked of any written source are, why was it written, why was it published?” initiates the process of accounting . . . (pp. 31-32, my formatting)
There are other questions to ask, too. What were the circumstances of the interaction between the event how the information came to us: how did the author know about the event? what has happened to the text in the hands of editors and copyists since it was composed? what do we know about the author, his status, his interests?
And don’t look for or complain about the lack of “objective accounts”. But do look for independent verification or “external controls”.
The objectivity of evidence is secured not by using foundational, indubitable observational claims, for there are none.
Objectivity comes with the prevention of circularity in the accounting whereby a claim of evidence contributes to its own verification. If an author describes things which can be evidenced in alternative ways, as Pausanius writes of monuments and topography which can be seen in the archaeological record, there is this independent check on his credibility in general. References to one author by another, as Dionysius of Halicarnassus describes the historical method of Thucydides, and coincidence of an author’s account with inscriptional reports, where the dating and authenticity of the inscription can be verified by independent means, both contribute to the assessment of the credibility of the textual information from the past. The reports from past historians, like the observation reports in science, must come with independent accounting claims if they are to be responsibly accepted as evidence. (p. 32)
What we read, then, in Josephus or Herodotus is not a focused image of the past. No. What we get is an “information-bearing signal” of something in the past that has begun with certain events, and been conveyed through various interactions that lead to us. That is Kosso speaking, but I would add a further point to be aware of: sometimes a signal can appear to be about a past event but is in fact a false signal. The historian must attempt to establish if what he or she is observing is “a false-positive”. It took a long time before historians came to understand that the accounts of the Trojan War and the Worldwide Flood were myths.
For the historian, then, the text
…. is not a light signal and it is very slow, but neither of these features disqualifies observational information in the case of science, nor should it in the historical case. What counts for observational information in science is that it gets to the observer by interaction with the object and that there is a credible account of the interaction. The same standards can apply in history. (p. 33)
To encapsulate the comparison:
The point is that the data in history, the tokens of written reports of the past, play an evidential role that is similar to the data in science, the images in microscopes, tracks in particle detectors, and the like. Both bear information of less accessible objects of interest and both are amenable to an analysis of the credibility and accuracy of that information in terms of an independent account of the interactions between the object and the final medium of information, an account, that is, of the formation of the image. As long as we understand the formation process, in science or in history, we can be quite liberal in allowing many kinds of signals to carry the information. (p. 33)
And that last sentence applies especially to ancient history where we find historians using all kinds of sources, not just ancient historians but even poets and playwrights to attempt to get a better handle on, say, an inscription unearthed by archaeologists.
And a word here for biblical apologists:
As with empirical evidence in science, the important epistemic standard is independence between the accounting claims and the benefactors of the evidence. (p. 34)
How does a researcher who prays to the resurrected Jesus spoken of in gospels do serious research into “the historical Jesus”? What would we make of an Egyptologist who was known to communicate — privately, of course — with the eternal pharaohs whose spirits had been immortalized in the pyramids?
What is necessary at all times is that the observer, scientist or historian, be able to see that the information has been “transferred by some accountable chain of interaction.”
all informational claims must have some justification (p. 34)
We think of science as being more theory-laden than history but that is an error. Theory, values, … these determine all our observations, our selections of topics of interest. Our background knowledge similarly determines our selection of topics of interest, how we interpret it and how we justify our observations and conclusions.
Kosso is writing about historical inquiry. I think the principles apply to anything we read. “All information claims must have some justification.”
Kosso, Peter. “Observation of the Past.” History and Theory 31, no. 1 (February 1992): 21. https://doi.org/10.2307/2505606.
Tim O’Neill makes a statement about history that I have never encountered in any work by any historian explaining to readers what he or she does. The only persons I have heard make the claim come from theological faculties when they try to place the evidence for Jesus on the same (or even higher) level that we have for other historical persons and events. O’Neill points his listeners to the title of his presentation: Did Jesus Exist? Yes (Probably) (link is to the 28 minute youtube video I am discussing). O’Neill explains:
It is … important to note the word “probably” in my answer to the question of whether this historical Jesus existed. Unlike some of the sciences, history can rarely arrive at definitive answers. . . . Historians are like detectives who examine evidence . . . and work out what probably happened. So when it comes to the pre-modern world, the sources, texts, passing references and documents and perhaps archaeology the historians analyse make it impossible for them to do more than than assess what is most likely. (from about 3 min 22 secs into the program)
Anyone who reads any work by historians discussing what they do will recognize that that remark is totally confused about what is the nature of history and the sorts of conclusions that can be drawn from the evidence — at least according to professional historians. At the very best the description might, with some slight modification, apply to a very narrow range of inquiries some historians undertake.
People who like definite answers or proof are usually going to find ancient history pretty frustrating or perhaps disappointing. This means we can’t prove Jesus existed. But scholars can and do conclude that his existence makes most sense.
Given that we cannot give a definitive answer to the question there should be no surprise to learn that there’s no single piece of relevant evidence that definitely shows a historical Jesus existed. . . . The conclusion he most likely did exist depends on several vectors of evidence converging on that as the most likely conclusion.
I – nor you – have never read in a history book that “Rome probably or most likely — we can’t prove it, but it seems most likely from the convergence of several vectors of evidence — once had an empire stretching from Spain to Mesopotamia”, or “Julius Caesar probably existed and was probably assassinated”, or “A probable Spartacus probably led a probable slave rebellion and was probably defeated”.
Where there are questions with unclear answers, historians don’t fudge the odds and say “probably” if there is reason to doubt. They debate, or suspend judgement, or take clear sides because the evidence that does exist convinces them one way or the other. Did the ancient Greeks practice human sacrifice in historical times? Was the practice of temple prostitution practised in the ancient Near East? Did slaves build the pyramids? When questions like these were asked by historians, historians set out what they believed to be their answers — affirmative or negative — and cited the evidence supporting their beliefs. They didn’t fudge with a “probably”. Being intellectually honest types they were willing to concede that they were wrong and ready to change their minds when presented with new evidence or arguments. But that is still taking clear cut sides. It is not a position of “probability”.
Most history is narrative history. The facts are known and the problem for the historian is to decide how best to interpret them and judge the role they played in a narrative about, say, the lead up to a war, or progress toward social changes. That’s where “probably” enters the thinking. Would World War 1 have broken out even if the Archduke of Austria had not been assassinated? Probably. Was the Archduke assassinated? No probably about it.
But enough of my words. Hear/read it from some renowned historians themselves:
I strongly defend the view that what historians investigate is real. The point from which historians must start, however far from it they may end, is the fundamental and, for them, absolutely central distinction between establishable fact and fiction, between historical statements based on evidence and subject to evidence and those which are not.
There is a postmodernist question about truth but even here we are not dealing with probability but with whether objective truth can be known or not.
It has become fashionable in recent decades, not least among people who think of themselves as on the left, to deny that objective reality is accessible, since what we call ‘facts’ exist only as a function of prior concepts and problems formulated in terms of these. The past we study is only a construct of our minds. One such construct is in principle as valid as another, whether it can be backed by logic and evidence or not. So long as it forms part of an emotionally strong system of beliefs, there is, as it were, no way in principle of deciding that the biblical account of the creation of the earth is inferior to the one proposed by the natural sciences: they are just different. Any tendency to doubt this is ‘positivism’, and no term indicates a more comprehensive dismissal than this, unless it is empiricism.
In short, I believe that without the distinction between what is and what is not so, there can be no history. Rome defeated and destroyed Carthage in the Punic Wars, not the other way round. How we assemble and interpret our chosen sample of verifiable data (which may include not only what happened but what people thought about it) is another matter.
Speaking of Steve Mason’s historical inquiry into what we can reconstruct of the origins of the Jewish War from Josephus, here are some quotations I marked as I read his second chapter. I hope to post one more time on this book, sharing some specifics of how he approached Josephus’s writings as historical sources. I began an archive listing key posts on historical methods and the nature of history more generally but Ouch!, I see that I haven’t worked on it since the day I started it! I need another time out but not from illness or injury this time. I’ll be adding this post there before the archive is finished.
Anyway, here are the things Steve Mason has to say about principles of historical research. There’s nothing new here for many of us, but they are points worth keeping in mind and sharing with others who are less familiar with what it’s all about.
Don’t just dive into a historical source and grab hold of whatever statements in it look useful tidbits for telling us what happened. First examine the source, see what sort of writing it is. We can’t merely assume a work that looks like history really is what most of us think a work of history should be. In Mason’s words,
In principle all survivals from the past, material or literary, need first to be understood for what they are if we are to use them to answer other questions. (60)
Don’t dismiss literary analysis of a source as irrelevant to your search for historical information in a source. Literary analysis at some level must come first before one knows how to interpret what one reads. That’s true even at the most basic level: e.g. is our source a diary or a parable?
A problem relevant to this chapter is the notion that those who care about the meaning of texts must be literary types unconcerned with the actual past. (61)
Here are “the most basic principles underlying this inquiry into the Jewish War.” The bolding and sometimes the layout are mine.
1. “Until someone can show otherwise, I am happy believing X. …”
1. Outside the academy, history seems most often to be equated with the past itself or with supposedly authoritative records. (61)
The past no longer exists. We need to interpret sources and with those interpretations re-imagine bits and pieces of the past and continue to revise our imaginations of the past as we learn more.
Each historian uncovers a new angle and offers it as a better key to understanding, but this very activity of constant reimagining means that we are not in a position simply to learn the facts and lessons of history. We are required instead to think, explore, and judge: not to hear what the past is itching to tell us but to investigate for ourselves.
History, then, is the process of methodical inquiry into the human past. (62)
I took time out last night to follow up a comment left on Vridar and listen to Derek Lambert’s MythVision interview with Tim O’Neill, author of the blog History for Atheists. If one sets aside the revealing psychological portrait that emerges from the incidental comments O’Neill lets drop about himself throughout the interview and focuses on his message one finds an unfortunate mix of contradictions, logical fallacies and factual errors presented with a confidence that evidently many readers find persuasive. I will attempt to deal with just one or two points per post to illustrate why readers and viewers need to put on their critical hats and examine carefully some of O’Neill’s claims.
In this post we look at what O’Neill has to say about the late Josephan specialist Louis Feldman, who came to reject the authenticity of any part of the Testimonium Flavianum (the passage about Jesus in Book 18 of Josephus’s Antiquities), and in particular at what O’Neill has to say about Feldman’s claim that a second century passage in a Dialogue with Trypho points to some debate at the time about the existence of Jesus.
Here is the Trypho passage.
But Christ—if he has indeed been born, and exists anywhere—is unknown, and does not even know himself, and has no power until Elias come to anoint him, and make him manifest to all. And you, having accepted a groundless report, invent a Christ for yourselves . . .
Mythicist Earl Doherty acknowledged the passage’s ambiguity:
As I discuss at length in Appendix 12 of Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, the typical historicist argument over this passage is that Trypho “is arguing that Christians invented a false conception of Christ and applied it to Jesus” (so Eddy and Boyd in The Jesus Legend, p.170). But the language is far from this specific. And it is not Trypho who is assuming Jesus existed, but Justin, who is creating the dialogue and putting into Trypho’s mouth what he himself believes and to further the argument he is constructing.
But it does suggest that Justin is countering something that contemporary Jews are claiming, and the quotation is sufficiently ambiguous to suggest even to a committed historicist scholar like Robert Van Voorst (Jesus Outside the New Testament, p.15, n.35) that “This may be a faint statement of a non-existence hypothesis, but it is not developed . . . ” (It is not developed because that is not part of Justin’s purpose.) The “groundless report” may allude to an accusation that the entire Gospel story with its central character was indeed fiction.
But O’Neill does not allow for any reasonable ambiguity and suggests that Feldman has fallen victim to senility for disputing the common interpretation of the passage.
The Intolerability of Ambiguity?
About 20 minutes in O’Neill professes adherence to the truism of the need to be tolerant of ambiguity in the evidence. The claim is made that “mythicism” appeals to people with a certain type of psychology, to those “who don’t like ambiguity”, who “want absolutes”, who “shun ambiguity and shades of grey”. About an hour in, he repeats “I am used to ambiguity”, to evidence that can be “read in different ways”, and that certain others “find ambiguity really weird”.
The sentiment is laudable. But when discussing a particular point of evidence that is clearly ambiguous O’Neill (around the 46-47 minute mark) unfortunately dismisses as blatantly wrong, as “a bad misreading, quite a remarkable, actually, misreading”, the interpretation that draws attention to its ambiguity.
Worse is the ad hominem: O’Neill goes so far as to suggest that the interpreter’s judgment was evidence of senility:
The problem with Feldman switching sides late in his life is … to be honest, I don’t think he was firing on all cylinders, he was in his eighties at that point, and also I think that his premise [is] on the misreading of a text.
Towards the end of the interview O’Neill declares that he believes in the importance of “reading books” and becoming familiar with “critical scholarship”. Again, a laudable sentiment. But had he done so in the case of Feldman’s claim about Trypho he would have known that Feldman did not somehow come to “remarkably misread” the text of Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho “late in his life” but had published the exact same point twenty years earlier.
When O’Neill refers to Paget’s criticism of Feldman’s “misreading” of Trypho, all he is doing is pointing to a blunt single sentence that says, without any argument or justification, that Feldman has “misread” the passage:
Feldman’s attempt to argue that Justin, Dial. 8 witnesses to such an argument is a misreading of the passage.
No argument. Just a bald assertion that Feldman is wrong.
I have written often about history, the nature of history, the history of historical writings, and historical methods. Very often the context of those posts has been biblical scholarship that falls short of meeting the basic standards of scholarly historical inquiry as it is typically found in history and classics departments. Occasionally one comes across a biblical scholar (e.g. Scot McKnight) who does bring up the names of historians in “nonbiblical fields” (e.g. Geoffrey Elton, E.H. Carr) but too quickly the main point of difference is bypassed even in those discussions. To find biblical historians who have taken up the methods of other historians — beginning with primary evidence and moving cautiously from there to secondary evidence — one turns to those unfortunately labelled “minimalists” in the studies of ancient Israel.
This post is a response to some specific claims about historical methods by Justin Meggitt, another scholar of religion, in his 2019 article, “More Ingenious than Learned’? Examining the Quest for the Non-Historical Jesus”. Meggitt, I hope to demonstrate, has also misinterpreted the way nonbiblical historians work and misapplied some of their methods to the question of historical Jesus studies — even while attempting to better inform his biblical scholar peers. In so doing I trust a more valid way forward will become clearer.
V. Chaturvedi, ed., Mapping Subaltern Studies and the Postcolonial (London: Verso, 2012);
S. G. Magnússon and I. M. Szijártó, What is Microhistory?: Theory and Practice (London: Routledge, 2013);
A. I. Port, ‘History from Below, the History of Everyday Life, and Microhistory’, ed. J. Wright, International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences (Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2015) 108–13.
Indeed, the lack of conventional historical training on the part of biblical scholars may well be evident in the failure of any scholar involved in discussing the Christ-myth debate to mention any long-established historiographical approaches associated with the study of the poor in the past, such as History from Below, Microhistory or Subaltern Studies,105approaches that might help us determine what kind of questions can be asked and what kind of answers can reasonably be expected to given, when we scrutinise someone who is depicted as coming from such a non-elite context.
(Meggitt, 22. Bolded highlighting is my own in all quotations)
. . . dramatically reduce the scale of their historical investigation, confining it to a single individual, small community, or seemingly obscure event which is then subject to painstaking microscopic analysis involving an intensive study of the available documentary material.
Port cites some examples:
Such histories usually fall into one of two categories: the ‘episodic’ and the ‘systematic’ (Gregory, 1999: 102). The first type, which tends to take a narrative approach and rely heavily on ‘thick description,’ focuses on a single, spectacular episode or event usually involving one person or a small group of individuals – such as
the investigation of a heretical sixteenth century Italian miller by Inquisition officials (Ginzburg, 1980),
the elaborately staged murder of dozens of cats by disgruntled apprentice printers in Paris in the 1730s (Darnton, 1984),
or an antisemitic riot incited by accusations of blood libel in a small Prussian town in the early twentieth century (Smith, 2002).
The other type assiduously reconstructs the complex web of familial and extrafamilial social relations in a small community. Prominent examples include
Giovanni Levi’s study of social interaction in a village in the Piedmont in the 1690s – “a banal place and an undistinguished story,” in the words of the author (Levi, 1988) –
and David Sabean’s dense studies of property, production, and kinship in the southern German village Neckarhausen from 1700 to 1870 (Sabean, 1990, 1998).
(Port, 108, formatting is my own in all quotations)
Surely, you are probably thinking, the historian must have primary and secondary sources on which to base any research into subjects like those. Indeed, they do. History from Below is not about subjects for whom we lack sources; it is a history that works with sources for “commoners”, everyday people, as opposed to the “great names” and institutions and parties that we normally turn to to “do history”. Another reference cited by Meggitt is What is Microhistory?: Theory and Practice by S. G. Magnússon and I. M. Szijártó, which contains a chapter on “Refashioning a Famous French Peasant”. It addresses method and sources for a historical inquiry into the sixteenth-century story of Martin Guerre and his wife, Bertrande de Rols. (Martin Guerre went missing and an imposter subsequently appeared to take his place. You know the story if you have seen the film Sommersby.) The sources available to historians on this person and his community are
court documents and correspondence penned by Judge Jean de Coras;
Histoire Admirable by Guillaume Le Sueur who based his story on notes by another judge involved in the case.
The poor villagers did not usually leave behind written records themselves but historians do have access to
reports by police and church officials, teachers, physicians, and factory inspectors; personal correspondence and travelogues; parish registers, wills, notarial records, and protocols.
We have nothing comparable for the study of Jesus or any of his presumed disciples.
Meggitt advises biblical scholars that they should be aware of the problems with this sort of “microhistory”. In principle, that is true. The nature of the evidence will always dictate what questions can be asked in the expectation of useful answers. But one does have to note that there is simply no primary source material of the kinds addressed in the three sources Meggitt cites for “microhistory” or “history from below” that is comparable to sources available for Christian origins and Jesus or any of his disciples. So the advice to be “aware of problems” of using primary sources for a person from the lower classes is misplaced in the context of historical Jesus studies.
Knapp, Robert. 2011. Invisible Romans: Prostitutes, Outlaws, Slaves, Gladiators, Ordinary Men and Women… The Romans That History Forgot. London: Profile Books.
Thompson, E. P. 1966. The Making of the English Working Class. New York: Vintage.
For example, given that most human beings in antiquity left no sign of their existence, and the poor as individuals are virtually invisible,106 all we can hope to do is try to establish, in a general sense, the lives that they lived. Why would we expect any non-Christian evidence for the specific existence of someone of the socio-economic status of a figure like Jesus at all? To deny his existence based on the absence of such evidence, even if that were the case, has problematic implications; you may as well deny the existence of pretty much everyone in the ancient world. Indeed, the attempt by mythicists to dismiss the Christian sources could be construed, however unintentionally, as exemplifying what E. P. Thompson called ‘the enormous condescension of posterity’107 in action, functionally seeking to erase a collection of data, extremely rare in the Roman empire, that depicts the lives and interactions of non-elite actors and seems to have originated from them too.
“For example” — that introduction is misplaced as a follow on from a discussion of “microhistory” or “history from below” by Chaturvedi, Magnússon and Port. Those three authors are addressing not “virtually invisible” persons, but persons of whom we have enough primary sources to write serious history even though they were not elites. The preceding paragraph was referring to a type of history includes the bringing to light those “poor as individuals” for whom we do have “signs of their [individual, personal] existence.” Knapp, whom Meggitt now cites at #106, is writing a quite different kind of history. Knapp is not an example of a historian doing the sort of history just described as “microhistory”. Knapp is doing something very different. He is doing another form of “macrohistory”:
I seek to uncover and understand what life was like for the great mass of people who lived in Rome and its empire. . . .
Ancient evidence comes in two types: the one intentionally provided and the other incidentally. The first is generally irrelevant to our purpose, but the second can be crucial. An elite author setting out, for example, to write on the Roman wars of expansion, will sometimes include contextual details and bits of information which, when combined with other evidence, begin to create a picture of ordinary people. The experience of ordinary people has no direct voice in the histories the Romans have left us. Yet sometimes it is possible to garner insights into the lives of the invisible people even where none was intended and to amplify these by deploying perspectives and evidence from a variety of other sources.
That’s very different from a “people’s history” in the sense discussed in the preceding paragraph. Knapp’s history of “ordinary people” (as he calls his demographic target of study) leaves no room whatever for a study of “a single individual, small community, or seemingly obscure event” (Port). As the article stands it appears that Meggitt has confused two quite distinct types of history. This is not a promising start for advancing historical Jesus studies.
So when Meggitt goes on to rhetorically ask
Why would we expect any non-Christian evidence for the specific existence of someone of the socio-economic status of a figure like Jesus at all?
he has already given us the answer but has turned his back on it because he has confused history of masses with micro or people’s history. To do “history from below” on Jesus a “micro-historian” will expect to find, as he or she does for other low-class persons, contemporary evidence preserved by literate classes about a person who was attracting a lot of attention among “the masses”. Literate classes have servants and contact with markets and will learn of any person making a name for themselves. Josephus notesquite a few of them, often with disgust. So do other Roman elites. We know, for example, interesting details about Cicero’s slave, Tiro.
A related informal fallacy is post hoc, ergo propter hoc (“after this, therefore because of this”) which holds that if one event follows another then the former must have caused the latter. (Similarly, cum hoc, ergo propter hoc involves the assertion “with this, therefore because of it.”) That Chamberlain’s government pursued a form of appeasement and then war followed does not imply that one necessitated the other. As before, the error lies in assuming that no other causes were operating.
One form of the fallacy is the “follow the money trail” or the “who benefits” (que bono) principle in forming a historical argument.
Several historians of post Soviet Russia have fallen into this error. Their argument is that market reforms following the collapse of the Communist government have benefitted a handful of elite oligarchs and that by a form of post hoc
It is tempting to argue post hoc ergo propter hoc: that those who benefitted from the market reforms were not only its main defenders, but even its principal instigators. So, market reform is seen to be the result of a deliberate policy by far-sighted communist bureaucrats to convert their collective political authority into private negotiable assets, an interpretation favored by both the Left (Kotz andWeir, 1997) and the Right (Satter, 2004; Hedlund, 2000).
But a more careful exploration of the actual evidence does not support that tempting theory:
Many of them were young and far removed from the core decision-making process in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Their political influence came after they became wealthy, not before.
We have seen several comments on this blog making the same type of argument in relation to Christian origins. The example I list is not a dig at any person but simply an attempt to draw attention to what I see as a flaw in the argument that has been proposed here. Take this post as an invitation to strengthen the argument by removing their weaknesses:
Christianity is a fraud that mostly benefited lying priests; therefore fraudsters, charlatans, must have created it. Compare the fallacy of the historians of modern Russia above.
Another one posted in the comments here argues for a 9/11 conspiracy the same way:
US power has benefited from the 9/11 attacks; therefore US power by some conspiratorial process must have been behind the attacks.
Again, that’s another instance of the same fallacious reasoning.
It is a favourite of politicians:
After X was elected the economy grew, therefore the economy grew because I was elected.
The Spanish Armada was thoroughly defeated by the English fleet and storms in 1588; from that time on we see the gradual demise of the Spanish empire: the loss of the Spanish Armada is said to be a major factor in the turning point in the fortunes of Spain’s power.
In fact, Spain’s empire continued without any losses for decades afterwards. It has also been shown that the loss of the Armada was followed by a serious development of the Spanish navy. There is little evidence that Spain and her place in the world suffered any long term damage as a result of the failure of 1588.
Fischer gives us another instance:
An example is provided by a female passenger on board the Italian liner Andrea Doria. On the fatal night of Doria‘s collision with the Swedish ship Gripsholm, off Nantucket in 1956, the lady retired to her cabin and flicked a light switch. Suddenly there was a great crash, and grinding metal, and passengers and crew ran screaming through the passageways. The lady burst from her cabin and explained to the first person in sight that she must have set the ship’s emergency brake!
To establish a hypothesis that event B was the result of the preceding event A the historical inquirer needs to point to evidence of a causal link. Simply declaring that “it is obvious” because one followed the other is not sufficient.
One frequently comes across this particular fallacy. Feel free to add more.
Fischer, David Hackett. 1970. Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought. New York: Harper.
Newall, Paul. 2009. “Logical Fallacies of Historians.” A Companion to the Philosophy of History and Historiography, edited by Aviezer Tucker and Mary Kane, Wiley-Blackwell.
Rutland, Peter. 2013. “Neoliberalism and the Russian Transition.” Review of International Political Economy 20 (2): 332–62. https://doi.org/10.1080/09692290.2012.727844.
If the gospels are mythical stories that have been presented as history then what value can they have for anyone today and how can we treat the gospels as a source for studying the historical Jesus? Those are the questions M. David Litwa addresses in the last pages of How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths.
In answer to the first question Litwa writes:
Both the scholar and the believer can recognize that gospel stories are transformative, if for different reasons. For the believer, the power often derives from divine inspiration and the salvific function of the myths. For the scholar, the power of gospel myths frequently lies in their versatility and world-making potential. The scholar and the believer can also, of course, be the same person.
(Litwa, p. 212)
I think of Thomas Brodie who does not find any historical core behind the gospel myths, not even a historical Jesus, who nonetheless finds meaning in the myths and has remained a Christian. But Litwa does believe a historical core does lie behind the myths. On what basis does he believe that?
“So let’s assume there actually was a corpse. What happened to it? There are only two possibilities. Either it was revivified, the way the Gospels tell it, or it wasn’t. If it wasn’t, it stayed on earth. There isn’t any third possibility. What happened to the body? Did it come alive or didn’t it?” [from The Flight of Peter Fromm]
The horns of this dilemma have gored the faith of some people. The meaning of Jesus’s resurrection—and of Christianity itself—is widely assumed to hang on its historicity. The value of any sort of “spiritual meaning” is discounted if there is no historical and physical basis for it. . . .
. . . [Peter Fromm] identifies the real with the historical (in the sense of “what happened”). Yet in the game of historical writing we never actually know exactly what happened. Historicity is not a cross from which the truth hangs in all its glory. It is at best a social agreement that someehing happened in the past. This assertion is not merely an outgrowth of postmodern philosophy; the ancients suggested something similar. The sophist Nicolaus (late fifth century CE) wrote that historical narratives are about past events acknowledged by consensus (homologoumenos’) to have happened. I emphasize “by consensus.” Historians do not have direct access to a past occurrence, though they might agree that it happened.
(Litwa, p. 213)
Litwa would say I am being too specific and should say that it is the consense of “historians” more generally. My response to the idea that most people take for granted the historicity of Jesus is found in an earlier post: Is it a “fact of history” that Jesus existed? Or is it only “public knowledge”? I prefer to narrow the point to “biblical scholars” because they are the ones who have set about to study Jesus.
Compare Johnston’s point: [A hero’s multiple versions/’plurimdiality’], and the intimate connection to [the hero] that this fostered in individuals, helped to create and sustain for some (perhaps all) the very assumption that he existed, which, in turn, sustained the practice of his cults.
It follows that Litwa knows that Jesus was crucified because that is the consensus of biblical scholars —
The current consensus regarding the “historical Jesus” is that he lived in Palestine, that he was a Jew crucified around 30 CE by Roman authorities.
(Litwa, p. 213)
and a few pages on —
I do not deny the historical basis for some gospel stories (notably the crucifixion)32
32. Here one might talk of “aspects of historicity,” as in Paul N. Anderson, Felix Just, and Tom Thatcher, eds., John, Jesus, and History, vol. 2, Aspects of Historicity in the Fourth Gospel (Atlanta: SBL, 2009).
(Litwa, pp. 218, 266)
The irony! The attempts to make a case for “aspects of historicity” in the Gospel of John in the cited volume are often the same tropes that in the earlier discussion were said to make myths believable! All page references in the following section are to the Anderson, Just and Thatcher volume Litwa cited above. (The following section is my response to Litwa’s insistence that there is a historical basis to some of the gospel stories.) — role of eyewitness testimony
e.g. Culpepper engages the recent work of two scholars (Howard M. Jackson and Richard Bauckham) who argue that John 21:24 is an autobiographical note indicating that the author of the Gospel is the Beloved Disciple. In this view, the Gospel of John is based on the eyewitness testimony of a follower of Jesus and makes that claim explicitly in the narrative.(p. 372)
— context of mundane history and life
e.g. [W]hile the Johannine Prologue opens the Fourth Gospel as a confessional piece used in worship, it also bears witness to first-hand encounter with the object of its confession: the fleshly Jesus grounded in mundane history. (p. 380)
e.g. Miller and others, however, find it historically plausible that Jesus himself had an encounter with a Samaritan woman. Evidence for this includes . . . the Gospel’s familiarity with Samaritan beliefs about the location of worship and the coming of an eschatological prophet, and the fact that some Galileans did travel through Samaria on their way to and from Jerusalem. (p. 100)
e.g. There are several factors of historical realism in this narrative. . . . [T]he narrator’s featuring factors of personal hygiene and comfort contribute to the mundane realism of the presentation. … In conclusion, given the cultural context, it is highly plausible that a Jewish person in first-century Galilee would perform a footwashing. Therefore, it is plausible that Jesus performed a footwashmg as he gathered for a final meal with his disciples in Jerusalem. On the bases of Jewish and Hellenistic literature, religious and societal customs, other presentations of fopMashing in the New Testament literature, and various aspects of historical realism, this scenario in John demands renewed consideration as a historical event . . . (pp. 259, 260)
Recently James McGrath has addressed a point I have regularly made about a key difference between the canonical gospels and historical and biographical narratives by ancient authors: the latter generally attempt to assure readers of the validity of their accounts by mentioning their sources; the former generally do not. McGrath has put an anachronistic slant on the question by making comparisons with the modern practice of formal citations and bypassed the reasons and techniques that belonged to ancient literary culture. Perhaps it is a good thing that he has done so because he does provide a warning to us today to be careful not to confuse modern academic practice with ancient literary interests. Before I respond specifically to some of his points I will focus on what seems to be the key question he poses in his “challenge” to “those who give credence to mythicists”:
The mythicist claim that the Gospels are thoroughly untrustworthy – or more ridiculously, that they are written intended to be taken as allegories that don’t describe anything remotely historical – are really problematic. Perhaps the best way to put it is to ask those who give credence to mythicists this:
Why trust modern-day mythicists and their claims about what is important, what is valuable, what is reliable, or anything else, while giving no credence even to the broad outlines of what various ancient authors have written?
Is it anti-religious bias?
A preference for their conclusions?
I ask these questions because there is nothing in what they write that is inherently or obviously authoritative or trustworthy. And so the same questions that apply to ancient sources, apply to modern ones as well. If it is the fact that they (well, some of them at any rate) mention scholars and sources regularly, then that is also true of mainstream scholars who conclude there was a historical Jesus, and it is true of conservative Christian apologists who are demonstrably untrustworthy even when they provide ample citations. And so my appeal to Jesus-mythicists is the appeal I’d make to any and all conspiracy theorists. By all means be skeptical – but be even-handedly skeptical, including of those you’re inclined to be persuaded by, and most importantly, of yourself.
(my formatting and highlighting)
“Trust” is a faith word. So my answer to McGrath’s first and primary question is this: No-one should “trust modern-day mythicists and their claims” about anything.
“Credence” is also a faith word. “Anti-religious bias” and “snobbery” and self-serving (implied) “preferences” for certain conclusions are all well-poisoning terms.
McGrath also speaks of mythicist writings that contain “nothing . . . that is inherently or obviously authoritative or trustworthy”, dismissing any citations by mythicists to mainstream scholarly works as unimpressive for some reason — because some apologists also cite mainstream scholars and produce arguments that are, well, apologetic. The analogy is fatuous, of course. Citations are used by good and bad scholars, good and bad amateurs, in good and bad ways. Therefore, in McGrath’s view, mythicists must for some reason he does not explain and for which he provides no examples be making pointless citations. Yet we know McGrath has excoriated mythicists for not engaging with mainstream scholarship yet when they clearly do engage with mainstream scholarship he allows their conclusions to inform him that their arguments are unreliable. Is it religious bias? Intellectual snobbery? A preference for other conclusions?
Here’s how scholarly inquiry, any serious rational inquiry, works.
We look for evidence that helps us understand the nature of the claims made by ancient (or any) authors. That generally means we begin by analysing the form and context in which the statements are made. We often do this subconsciously. We let the tone of voice or writing help us decide if someone is being serious or joking. We allow the medium on which a message is written (a royal inscription, an officially stamped letter) to tell us if it is an official statement or not. (Official statement indicates that its primary audience is expected to believe what is written; we need other grounds for deciding if we should believe what is written.) The source of what is said is another important factor. A source can mean the person responsible for the words we read; it can further mean the sources available to that author. Provenance can refer either the original source of the document or it can refer to where the physical manuscript or tablet was found and by whom and what we know about how it reached us. All of those factors are important to understand when it comes to reading and interpreting any ancient work.
Where we have prose narratives about events and persons it is necessary for us to know something about how they were understood by their authors and original audiences. I have sometimes half-joked in frustration that no-one should be allowed to undertake studies in the biblical literature until they have first done a major course in classics: biblical studies should be offered only as part of a larger course in early Jewish/Judean literature studies and only as a post-grad course for those who are well-grounded in the wider literature of the ancient world.
In other words, we ought to interpret and evaluate biblical literature in the context of the wider literary world of that day. Biblical scholars will no doubt say that they certainly do that, but my experience with studies in biblical literature tells me that many only do so patchily and over-selectively at best.
If anyone (mythicist or mainstream biblical scholar) makes any claim one should always look for the evidence that supports the claim. No claim should be “trusted”, either. The most positive approach we can have with any claim is to accept it pending further discussion, analysis and evidence. That means continual reading and discussion, learning new perspectives, becoming familiar with more data. It means engagement especially with those who have the most experience with the data, usually the professional scholars, and we find that the most insightful authors of mythicist ideas are the ones who do engage seriously and thoroughly with that scholarship. Leaving the mainstream scholarly field behind and restricting one’s reading to unorthodox views that only sporadically touch on mainstream scholarship is not a healthy pursuit.
Mainstream scholars also have a responsibility to address questions raised about their work without sneering dismissals, elaborate appeals to authority, or misrepresenting the questions and arguments posed to them.
A mythicist claim should not be trusted but should be carefully assessed against the evidence offered and serious discussion about alternative interpretations and other evidence in the mainstream scholarly literature. The most positive response to any claim by a mythicist ought to be tentative acceptance pending further information.
Mainstream scholars need to keep in mind that some mythicist authors have had no axe to grind against Christianity (some have even remained very positive towards it) and that some (one might say many) mythicist authors were for some years believers in a historical Jesus even as atheists and that believing in the historicity of Jesus would make no difference to them ideologically, personally, in any way. Indeed, a number of us have said that mythicism is the worst way to try to undermine or attack Christianity. There are other more effective ways of going about that enterprise.
Professor James McGrath of Butler University recently posted on his blog a tantalising article, The Gospel of the Gaps (and the Gaps of the Gospels). I describe it as tantalising because it seemed to promise so much but left readers without answers to the questions it raised.
The post began:
One of the things that mythicists regularly mention is the (in their view) long period between when the events that gave rise to Christianity transpired, and our earliest copies of texts that mention them.
Yes, that is true. But it is also true that the very same question is raised by many more mainstream biblical scholars. And they suggest different hypotheses to explain that “(in their view) long period between when the events that gave rise to Christianity transpired, and our earliest . . . texts that mention them.” (I don’t know of any mythicist — and I am sure McGrath knows of none — who argues a case that Jesus did not exist because we have a large gap between purported events and the earliest manuscript copies describing those events. It’s a big world and there are probably some who do argue that but I don’t think they are any more widely accepted than someone who argues for the non-existence of Priam, Agamemnon, Achilles etc on the bases that our earliest manuscripts of Homer are many centuries subsequent to their time.)
But back to the point. Mythicists like Earl Doherty and Thomas Brodie and others do indeed “regularly mention” the gap between events described in the gospels and the apparent fact that the gospels were not written until a generation or two after those events — but they do so by addressing the problem as raised by mainstream biblical scholars. McGrath has read Doherty’s book so only needs to consult its index and bibliography to refresh his memory.
But McGrath’s point is bigger. All of the above is only pointing out the tendentious nature of McGrath’s approach to the question.
The next question is most interesting and one I hoped to see answered:
They clearly have no sense of what is typical when it comes to ancient history more generally.
Now that reminds me of a time some years back when I grappled with “How do we know certain persons/events existed/happened” in ancient times? I had studied ancient history for three years as an undergraduate and knew how we knew what we did about Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great, for example. Books and lectures would usually begin by setting out and explaining the sources our studies were to rely upon. With the presentation of those sources there was no question, “Did Julius Caesar exist?” We could all see the evidence and the question never arose.
So what is different about the gospels as sources for Jesus?
When McGrath raised the question of “what is typical when it comes to ancient history more generally” I was looking forward to at least a summary to explain what that typical thing is. But it never appeared. I suspect the reader is meant to assume that all ancient sources are written long after the events they describe and, well, if we believe them, then we should believe the gospels, too.
But if that was what the reader was meant to assume then the message is a misinformed one.
So here are questions I would like someone to present to Professor McGrath to offer him a chance to encourage serious dialogue. Perhaps his responses could be copied here in the comments.
Question 1: What ancient event (or person) do historians generally, without controversy, accept as having happened (or existed) for which our known sources are entirely very late (by a full generation of forty years or more)? By sources, I include here the sources mentioned by the later authors: thus, for example, we have, say, a very late history of Alexander the Great but the author of that source explains how he acquired his information and that it comes from such and such a biographer who lived at the time of Alexander. (The gospels have nothing comparable: Luke’s prologue is as vague and ambiguous as ancient historian prologues are specific and clear.)
Question 2: And this is a slightly extended form of the above question. What ancient event (or person) do historians generally, without controversy, accept as having happened (or existed) for which we have no independent evidence to help verify our written sources? By independent supporting evidence, I include here not only archaeological evidence but also other writings that are independent yet testifying to the same event/person.
There are many other questions I could ask but those are the key ones. I have discussed the above points — and many other related questions — about historical methods, in particular the methods of ancient historians and about the writings of ancient historians themselves in many posts. I have also raised the above questions before, but years ago, directly with McGrath. (Just click on the tags related to this post for scores of such posts.)
Maybe add one more question here:
Question 3: What are the different explanations biblical scholars have advanced in scholarly works for the gap of 40 to 80 years between the canonical gospels and the time setting of the events they narrate — and in what area of ancient history are there comparable gaps (bearing in mind the relevance of Q’s 1 and 2 above) for which classicists and historians of ancient times propose similar explanatory hypotheses? Or are the canonical gospels in some ways unique and not comparable to the methods normally accepted in the field of ancient history?
Now I certainly admit that some answers may be new to me and I may be forced to revise or at least modify my past conclusions. But I need clear examples to demonstrate the comparability between the generally accepted methods of historians of ancient times and those of biblical scholars. Looking forward to new knowledge and understanding.
I’m travelling again so am pulling out the occasional post I’ve had in store for such times. If circumstances do not permit some of my planned posts I’ll post another one of these.
McGrath would appeal to the variables shaping “cultural memory” and theological tendentiousness and the tradition of Jewish authors rewriting “Old Testament” scriptures; the mythicists would appeal to one less hypothesis . . .
It’s been a while since I addressed James McGrath’s critical responses to mythicism so I will try to make amends. Please, only courteous and civil responses will be acceptable in the comments. I bent over backwards to make the peace with James McGrath a few years ago and I would still like to keep that possibility open. I like to hope that he will respond to my posts in a reciprocal spirit.
About three months ago McGrath engaged in discussions on Bob Seidensticker’s Cross Examined blog and presented the following list to enable readers to get a grasp of his reasons for objecting to mythicism. He listed only the urls but I have added the titles, too.
I’ve been blogging and writing elsewhere about this [i.e. mythicism] for many years. Here are a few samples in case they are helpful.
Here McGrath quotes a portion of an article (the second last sentence) by Ronald Hendel and claims its relevance not only for “minimalists/maximalists” but for “mythicists and other modernists”. Minimalists refers to scholars who question the historicity of “biblical Israel”, believing the archaeological evidence must always trump the literary, and that archaeologists working in Palestine have not found evidence for
an exodus of Israelites from Egypt;
an invasion of Canaan by Israelites from the wilderness;
for a united kingdom of Israel and Judah under David and Solomon;
parallel kingdoms of Israel and Judah existing side by side up until the Assyrian conquest of Samaria;
monotheistic worship of Yahweh until after the Persians established the colony of Jehud.
Maximalists, on the other hand, are generally said to trust the Biblical narratives unless they have good reasons to doubt them, and that there was some sort of Exodus behind the biblical story, a united kingdom under David, and some sort of historical reality behind the biblical account.
McGrath also refers to “modernists” but I will leave aside that side of his criticism because I am not sure what the term covers or how it is relevant to “mythicism”. (Hendel refers without elaboration to a dichotomy of “post modernists / modernists” in the last sentence.) McGrath introduces Hendel’s words with:
The idea that we are either going to precisely reconstruct the past, or conversely decisively disprove traditional views about it, without room for doubt or error, reflect the approach of a bygone era.
A very bygone era, indeed. I don’t know when modern historical studies have ever claimed to be able to establish “precise reconstructions …. without room for doubt or error”. Even our “father of modern history”, Leopold von Ranke, said that the most he hoped to be able to “reconstruct” was how a time and event “essentially was” — not how it was precisely and infallibly in all respects. I would be interested to know the specific scholars McGrath has in mind.
At this point I question the relevance of this introduction for the minimalist/maximalist debate as much as for mythicists. I don’t think either maximalist Albright or minimalist Thompson would claim to offer readers a precise reconstruction of the past without room for doubt or error. Nor do I know of any mythicist who seriously engages with the academic works of biblical scholars (e.g. Brodie, Doherty, the early Wells, Price, Carrier . . . ) who makes dogmatic claims about precise reconstructions of the past. All, from my reading at least, appeal to the weight of probabilities. I am open to correction, of course, but preferably from James McGrath’s own reading of mythicists.
When sharing a recent blog post on social media, I offered some thoughts on how academic study works at its most basic level. Here is what I wrote, with some minor improvements and alterations to the wording:
Reading some online discussions, you’d think that there is a need for people on those blogs and discussion boards, with no particular expertise in or professional connection with the study of history, to come up with their own methods for historical study. Not that they don’t talk about what historians and scholars past and present have done and do. But they talk about the methods as though they themselves actually use them regularly to investigate historical questions and so are poised to assess their value, and indeed better poised that professionals who do in fact use them, daily.
The “discussion boards” link is to my forum post. Far from suggesting that my post in any way implied that amateurs do or should “come up with their own methods for historical study” the whole thrust of the post was that academic historians explain and justify the methods that they, as academics, use. And far from suggesting that biblical scholars investigating the question of the historical Jesus “do in fact use” those same methods, the whole thrust of the post was that as a rule biblical scholars addressing the historical Jesus part company with their historian peers in non-biblical fields.
The same criticism of my post was made in mid March this year and I responded at that time with a copy of my forum post. I copy that forum post again here, but preface it with a link to a fuller discussion by a historian of ancient history of some renown, M. I. Finley:
I said I needed to add a complementary post to Can We Find History Beneath the Literary Trappings?, one that presented the positive side of historical research showing what is a valid approach by way of contrast with the often fallacious methods and unjustified assumptions of much scholarly research into Christian origins and the historical Jesus.
As for the question or relevance of Bayesian analysis in historical research reasoning I recommend a post by Christoph Heilig, author of Hidden Criticism? The Methodology and Plausibility of the Search for a Counter-Imperial Subtext in Paul, What Bayesian Reasoning Can and Can’t Do for Biblical Research on the Zürich New Testament Blog. (Of course there is Richard Carrier’s book, Proving history: Bayes’s theorem and the quest for the historical Jesus, and I do get the impression that compared with responses to On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason to Doubt, few critics have actually engaged with that presentation by Carrier. So if you are one of those who are ad hominem focused so that you treat anything by Carrier as wrong I suggest you read Heilig’s discussion instead.)
Historical research methods are really not difficult in principle, though. Niels Peter Lemche sums it all up most succinctly in something of his that I quoted in another post:
The question about historical information in the OT is a classical historical-critical issue. Here the only demand is that any investigation must be complete and take into consideration every piece of evidence, and there is no question that should not be asked (such as the alleged historicity of David and Solomon).
This should be rather evident, and it is remarkable that is to many people is not, and then begins another project: to find out why it is so difficult for many biblical scholars to go all the way with their critical studies which in this way turn out to be not critical at all but faith based.
That was posted on a scholarly biblical studies discussion list. I cannot help but strongly suspect that had Lemche also referenced the words of his recently departed peer, Philip R. Davies, and included the name Jesus beside David and Solomon, his post would not have been accepted so quietly there.
[S]urely the rather fragile historical evidence for Jesus of Nazareth should be tested to see what weight it can bear, or even to work out what kind of historical research might be appropriate. Such a normal exercise should hardly generate controversy in most fields of ancient history, but of course New Testament studies is not a normal case and the highly emotive and dismissive language of, say, Bart Ehrman’s response to Thompson’s The Mythic Past(recte: The Messiah Myth) shows (if it needed to be shown), not that the matter is beyond dispute, but that the whole idea of raising this question needs to be attacked, ad hominem, as something outrageous. This is precisely the tactic anti-minimalists tried twenty years ago: their targets were ‘amateurs’, ‘incompetent’, and could be ignored. — Philip Davies, Did Jesus Exist, 2012
Just one final point. Lemche has also pointed to the unscholarly tone of certain criticisms:
. . . . in creating an image of a scholar who does not know his stuff. It can be done in a gentle way, as in Long’s introduction. It can be sharpened as in the quote by J.K. Hoffmeister, cited in Long’s introduction, or it can be rude as found in several publications by W.G. Dever and other scholars on the same line like G. Rendsburg. The meaning is the same: do not discuss the points made by these people; just say that they are incompetent.
Those words came to mind yesterday as I was reading a work by a well respected historian of modern Germany, Richard Evans. He is addressing the work of another historian (or amateur) who lacked formal scholarly qualifications and here is how he explained his approach. It was not sufficient to sneeringly dismiss David Irving as a “Holocaust Denier”:
Despite all this, Irving had never held a post in a university history department or any other academic institution. He did not even have a degree. He had started a science degree at London University but never finished it. “I am an untrained historian,” he had confessed in 1986. “History was the only subject I flunked when I was at school.” Several decades on from his self-confessedly disastrous schoolboy encounter with the subject, however, Irving clearly laid great stress on the fact that the catalogue of his work demonstrated that he had now become a ‘reputable historian’:
As an independent historian, I am proud that I cannot be threatened with the loss of my job, or my pension, or my future. Other historians around the world sneer and write letters to the newspapers about ‘David Irving, the so-called historian’, and then they demand, ‘Why does he call himself a Historian anyway? Where did he study History? Where did he get his Degree? What, No Degree in History, then why historian or not? Was Tacitus? Did he get a degree in some university? Thucydides? Dihde get a degree? And yet we unashamedly call them historians – we call them historians because they wrote history which has done (recte: gone) down the ages as accepted true history.
This was true. Irving could not be dismissed just because he lacked formal qualifications.
Evans, Richard J. 2002. Lying About Hitler. New York: Basic Books. 5f
How many tenured scholars in biblical studies have the same approach as the one Richard Evans recognized was important for public perceptions in a debate related to the Holocaust?
Not everyone was happy with my post The Great Divide in Biblical Studies. Admittedly the words “great divide” carried connotations for many readers that I had not intended. By “great divide” I was thinking of the intellectual gulf between those scholars who follow methods of historical research that would fit seamlessly into any other historical research in other history departments, whether ancient or modern, on the one hand, and those scholars who resort to various psychologically grounded yet fallacious “criteria of authenticity” as their primary tools of historical research on the other.
If I had been keeping up with various discussion groups I would have known at the time that another highly regarded biblical scholar, Niels Peter Lemche, had only weeks previously made the same point about too many of his peers. In the Yahoo Biblical Studies list he posted the following:
The question about historical information in the OT is a classical historical-critical issue. Here the only demand is that any investigation must be complete and take into consideration every piece of evidence, and there is no question that should not be asked (such as the alleged historicity of David and Solomon).
This should be rather evident, and it is remarkable that is to many people is not, and then begins another project: to find out why it is so difficult for many biblical scholars to go all the way with their critical studies which in this way turn out to be not critical at all but faith based.